Welcome to the world of parole law. It is an honor to be asked to write about my practice area for the TCDLA membership. It is also a privilege to be selected to be a board member for this wonderful organization. I am passionate about my work and love my career.
For those of you who don’t know me, I spent the first 12 years of my career as a public defender in Chicago (Cook County). I started in Traffic Court and worked my way up to the Felony Trial Division. The pace was frantic and the caseloads immense; there was always ongoing litigation.
I moved to Texas in 2015 and started my law firm focusing on a statewide parole practice. In the upcoming months, I will write a series of articles on parole law. The purpose of these articles will be to give clear, concise, and easy-to-apply principles of parole law for practitioners to use daily. Some of the topics will include general parole fundamentals, the parole review process, discretionary mandatory supervision, and parole revocation hearings.
For starters, parole law can be confusing. That is mostly because there is no central repository for parole law. Most of the “rules” pertaining to parole issues come from many different sources including: Chapter 508 of the Government Code, Texas Administrative Code, Parole Board Policies and Directives, Parole Division Parole Operating Procedures, and case law.
One of the biggest differences between parole law and criminal defense law is the focus of the work. In criminal defense work, we are generally micro-focused on the case at hand. We are looking at the offense charged, the elements of the offense, the evidence, and any potential defenses. Due to time constraints, we rarely have time to focus much on mitigation until after the case is tried. And as we all know, very few cases are tried to verdict. So, the focus is usually centered on the alleged offense, but the full backstory is usually not covered.
Parole law on the other hand is macro-focused. The instant offense is just one small part of the overall picture. In fact, during my daylong long interviews with my clients (many lasting over six hours), we may only discuss the instant offense for 30 minutes or so. We spend the rest of the time discussing their childhood, adolescence, education, family, home environment, mental health, learning disabilities, medical issues, ties to the community, family support, job skills, employment history, prior offenses, and conduct in prison, just to name a few.
You could say that parole law is holistic in nature; it looks at the whole person and not just the instant offense. In the following article and the ones to follow, I will present the most common questions and topics clients and attorneys ask regarding corrections and parole. Parole can be quite complicated, but this article and the ones to follow should be a great start for attorneys when advising clients who may be facing prison sentences.
Who Are the Parties Involved in Parole Decisions?
The Texas Board of Pardons and Paroles (“Parole Board”) determines who shall be released on parole. The Texas Department of Criminal Justice (“TDCJ”) has no say in the release of offenders. Contrary to popular belief, the Parole Board and TDCJ are not the same entity. You can think of it this way: TDCJ houses and monitors offenders until and unless the Parole Board tells them otherwise. The Parole Board doesn’t tell TDCJ how to run their prisons, and TDCJ doesn’t tell the Parole Board whom to release.
The Parole Board is actually comprised of seven board offices: Amarillo, Angleton, Austin, Gatesville, Huntsville, Palestine, and San Antonio. Board Offices are assigned to vote on prison units in their general geographic region. For example, the Austin Board generally votes on cases in Central Texas and the San Antonio Board generally votes on cases in South Texas. Each board office has three voters (one Board Member and two Parole Commissioners).
What may be surprising is that votes are not done as a group. The first voter on a particular case (lead voter) typically votes on a case, and then the file is turned over to the next voter. Two of three votes are needed to either grant or deny parole.1 In a typical year, the Parole Board will vote on 80,000 cases. Last year the overall approval rate was 35 percent. There are many reasons for that number, but we will discuss that in the next article.
What Kinds of Votes Are There?
When an offender2 is reviewed for parole, it is not usually a “yes” or “no” vote. The Parole Board has many options when deciding to grant or deny parole. For parole approvals, the Board can order many types of votes, which are called FI votes. Among the more common votes: immediate release (FI-1 vote), substance abuse programs FI-5, FI-6, or FI-R vote), or sex offender programs (FI-4, FI-9, & FI-18 vote). In fact last year, of the offenders granted parole, approximately two-thirds of offenders were required to complete a program in prison prior to release.
Where Will Offender Go and How Soon Until They Leave?
Offenders generally stay in county jail no longer than 45 days after sentencing. This is referred to as “catching chain.” Offenders must first go to an intake unit. The intake units for men are the Byrd, Gurney, Holliday, and Garza West Units. Women generally go to the Plane State Jail and Woodman State Jail for intake.
What Happens at Intake Units?
Once an offender arrives at the intake unit, they are generally “off the radar” for three weeks. Be prepared to tell your clients that the first three weeks of prison are often the worst. Offenders are arriving at these units from all over the state. Some are there for two-year non-violent sentences and some are there serving life sentences for violent offenses.
There are no visits allowed during this initial time, no phone calls, and no access to commissary. During this time, offenders will be photographed, fingerprinted, and assigned a TDCJ number. All tattoos will be documented and gang membership will be questioned. Offenders will also get medical screenings (physician, dentist, and psychologist). Usually an IQ test will be given, too. There will be little to no programming available. It is during this time that offenders are given their Line Class and Custody Classification. An offender’s parole eligibility date will be calculated as well. Within 48 hours of arriving at an intake unit, an offender will appear on the TDCJ website, which shows their unit of assignment and contact information.
Offenders can stay at an intake unit or state jail unit for the first two years of their sentence. This is generally frowned upon by offenders because these units generally have fewer options for work assignments, programs, and classes.
Good Time Credit and Custody Classification
Each offender is given a Line Class and Custody Classification. Line Class corresponds to Time Earning Status.3 For example, most offenders arrive at TDCJ as Line Class 1. With good behavior, they can be promoted to various Trustee Levels (SAT II-IV). If they misbehave, they will be reduced to Line Class 2 or 3.
Good Time Credit
Offenders entering TDCJ as a Line Class 1 will receive 20 days Good Time for each month served. Once assigned a job, offenders in Line Class 1 will receive and extra 15 days of Good Time on top of the 20 for each month in prison. If promoted to trustee, Good Time will increase up to a maximum of 45 days per month. Please note that Good Time is not awarded to offenders serving time for a 3G offense.4
Each offender is also assigned a Custody Classification, which is also referred to as G Levels (G1-G5). This determines where an offender can live, how much supervision they will need, and what jobs they can be assigned. The factors used in determining Custody Classification are current and previous institutional behavior, current offense, and sentence length.
On the high end, G1 classification allows offenders the most freedom, and they are generally assigned to Trustee dorms with unarmed supervision. On the low end, G-5 custody classification is relegated to those offenders who are escape risks or have a history of assaultive behavior. Administrative (“Ad”) Segregation is actually the lowest custody classification. Those offenders are usually in single cells for 23 hours a day.
What About Credit for Time Spent in County Jail?
Offenders who are sentenced for non-3G offenses receive 20 days Good Time for each month in custody.5 Therefore, a client who spent one year in county jail before sentencing will receive eight months Good Time credit upon arriving at TDCJ.
What Kind of Job Will My Client Get?
Contrary to popular belief, TDCJ has many jobs and vocational classes for offenders to participate in. Everyone in TDCJ is assigned a job, everyone goes to work. For those offenders who are in ill-health or have severe medical problems, they can be declared “medially unassigned.” During intake, offenders should talk about their work experience, job skills, and certifications. Many offenders are assigned to field squad, laundry, or garment factory. In my experience, offenders who have marketable skills such as welders, electricians, and plumbers usually get the best assignments. For those who wish to learn new skills, TDCJ offers some unique training programs. I have had clients who trained security dogs used on manhunts and others who trained service dogs. I even had a client who obtained his CDL in prison and spent his time driving a truck back and forth between prison units. Once again, the availability of these jobs is dependent on the particular unit, their custody classification, and of course luck.
What Kind of Programs Are Available?
TDCJ offers a wide variety of programs for inmates. This is unit-specific, many units offer more programs than others. Many clients find that classes help them pass the time, learn something new, or just be there as a support system for other offenders. Some popular programs include: Quest for Authentic Manhood, Bridges to Life, Cognitive Intervention, and Voyager. Many of these programs are run in coordination with faith-based or community-based organizations. A few units offer college courses as well. Keep in mind that the most popular programs often have long waiting lists and entry is not guaranteed.
What Can I Do to Help My Client?
The single most important thing an attorney can do for a client who is going to prison is to SAVE THE CLIENT’S FILE. That means keeping the file, either paper form or scanned into your hard drive. This does not only include the discovery but also investigator reports, plea offers, and trial notes. I cannot stress enough how important that is.
After being granted permission by the client, I always call the client’s prior attorney to discuss the case. You would be surprised how much information can be learned about the case from talking to the prior attorney. For example, it is common for a deadly weapon finding to be removed in the plea process. However, if that deadly weapon finding were removed because the investigation revealed that no weapon actually existed, this can be a very helpful piece of information. Moreover, affirmative defenses raised at trial, even if not successful, can be mitigating factors when presenting cases to the Parole Board.
In the next article, I will discuss the parole process in more depth. Topics will include factors used in the parole voting process, Discretionary Mandatory Supervision, set-offs, ex post facto issues, and parole in absentia.
- There are some circumstances where only Board Members vote such as SB 45 and 1914 cases but that is only reserved for the most serious offenses.
- The word “offender” is the term used to refer to inmates in Texas.
- Texas Government Code 498.003
- Texas Government Code 508.145(d)
- Texas Government Code 498.003